My Embarrassing First Day as a Dementia Carer

Helping people shouldn’t be this hard

My Dad was diagnosed with dementia at age 68 and I was a family carer for him. I helped look after him at home across 6 years until things became too difficult and we had to place him in a nursing home. I continued to care for him in conjunction with the nurses and care staff and learnt about dementia care along the way. I enjoyed chatting with the residents and adapting to each person with tips and tricks I observed on the ward. I soon became ‘part of the furniture’ at the nursing home and took on extra responsibilities.

One day the lifestyle co-ordinator of Dad’s nursing home asked me if I was prepared to be responsible for running the men’s group on a regular basis. This entailed providing activities for up to 8 men every Thursday afternoon. I jumped at the opportunity and thought to myself “How hard can this be? I have been observing the care staff for over 6 months now and have picked up valuable tips along the way.” One important thing I did learn is that the more you know about your resident, the better care you can provide.

I asked for the case notes on each resident and researched their personal history. I studied their life stories including hobbies, sports, achievements, family members and even if the person is currently having an affair. I found this information staggering, but interesting as it often explains why certain behaviours occur. By knowing this information you are able to understand how the person thinks and gives you clues on how to reason with people when they become aggressive or agitated. It also explains why residents become upset and feel guilty.

It was two days before my first official men’s group activity and I was in Dad’s room after showering & shaving him when he grabbed a tissue and started to clean my shoes. It actually engaged him for a minute or two, which is something we had not been able to find in recent times. This sparked a brainwave with me that I could conduct a ‘shoe shining’ session with the men on Thursday. It is tactile, they have done it many times before, and they may have a sense of pride in completing a worthwhile task. My brain was buzzing with ideas and the more I thought about it, the more I believed I had the perfect activity for people with dementia. The men will love it.

I frantically prepared over the next 2 days, filling my van with shoe stands, rags, foam shoe shine kits, old posters, tables, stools, and anything I could find related to shoe shining. I constructed activity plans which document how to set up and perform each activity. I formulated check lists to make for faster preparation of food and drink trolleys. I also created an activity report so I can document the results of each activity as it happens. I felt the men needed a uniform to set us apart from the women, so went to K-Mart and purchased 8 black aprons. I was really excited and thought that I am going to put on a show that will revolutionize the care industry and enrich the resident’s lives, or so I thought.

Thursday had arrived and it had a grand final buzz for me. I was edgy, but pumped in readiness for my men’s group activity debut. I had a spring in my step and loaded in my props, tables etc into the dining room. Everything I did had the resident’s well being ‘front of mind’.

I prepared tables that were waist height so the men didn’t have to bend over, and I kept the area tight so the men could sit closer to each other and hear one another better (many are deaf). I used wax polishing kits to avoid mess, aprons for the same reason, and played soft music to keep the mood happy. I brought in 20 shoes on a stand to be polished. I had a fully loaded food and drinks trolley with the best treats. I was ready to go.

My buddy Sam collected the men from their rooms and walked them to the dining room. I greeted each man and placed a brand new apron on each of them. Dad was the only person who kept taking it off. Eventually we had 4 men (others were agitated or at appointments) in the group and I had to entertain them for the next 90 minutes. I started by offering each man a drink and a biscuit, which made them all happy. I grabbed the camera and took a few shots while I had everyone in position. It was at this point where things took a turn for the worse.

I handed one man a shoe and helped him apply his polish . He was frustrated because he couldn’t get the polish onto the back part of the shoe. His polishing sponge also was breaking apart and the shoe wax was like glue. A minute later he said “I want to go to the bathroom.” Sam walked him back to his room while I helped a 94 year old resident called Max. He was in one of his grumpy moods and he snapped at me with “WHAT ARE WE BLOODY DOING THIS FOR? MY SHOES ARE FINE!” I tried to calm him by saying “I have all these shoes to clean Max, I really need your help to get them done.” He yelled back “THAT’S YOUR PROBLEM, NOT MINE.”

I was starting to feel the pressure now because all the other carers were watching me and I was desperate for this activity this to work. Sam returned from the toilet, but without his resident. Sam came up to me and whispered “I need to tell you Brett, that the resident did not really want to go to the toilet, he made an excuse to get away from the activity.” I was disappointed, but battled on as I expected at least one resident may walk away. I then worked with Max by helping him polish his shoe. His polishing sponge also fell apart and the wax smeared across the shoe leaving a trail of sticky sponge bits. “What the hell is happening here?” I thought to myself. I looked over at Dad and other remaining resident and both had a sticky mess all over their shoes.

I grabbed a rag and rubbed furiously trying to get all the gluey sponge bits off everybody’s shoes. The residents were all complaining. Max then yelled out “THIS IS SHIT!… IT’S A BLOODY MESS.” I didn’t know who to help first? I went after Max as he was making the most noise. I wiped his shoe and he yelled out again “NOW LOOK AT THE BLOODY MESS ALL OVER MY BLANKET?” ( it was over his legs keeping him warm even though it was 36 degrees). I tried to brush off the glue bits from his tartan rug. He then stood up, took off his apron and said “I am not doing this, I am going back to my room!” I pleaded with him to stay, and even offered to bring in an old cash register from my van (Plan B) so he could ‘fix it’ for me. He wouldn’t have it, and left the group.

My confidence was shattered now as I had lost 2 residents in 2 minutes. I was reeling and now in damage control. I looked across at Dad and he had grabbed his sticky polishing sponge and decided to rub it all over his face. Oh no…now I have two residents with spotty shoes and Dad thought he would have a shave by rubbing the shoe polish all over his face. I grabbed another rag to clean him up, when the other resident
(Roger) became agitated. Roger is incapacitated in a walking frame, can’t speak and dribbles a lot. I was thinking to myself “At least he won’t complain or take off.” I was wrong, he began to shake his frame and grunt at me. His body language was crystal clear, it said “I wanna get outta here…NOW!” Sam also noticed this and decided to walk Roger back to his room.

So there I am sitting with Dad amongst all this shoe shine setup, and I was now desperate. The other carers were starting to laugh as they observed my debacle from a distance. I leaned over and whispered to Dad “I really need you here, can you just sit with me and polish this shoe?” He grabbed the shoe and threw it straight on the floor. I thought to myself “You have gotta be kidding me?” I then decided it was time to roll my last dice and said to Dad through gritted teeth “Just sit with me and you can have extra chips and some Monte Carlo biscuits….I need you”. My plea fell on deaf ears, Dad stood up snatched two Monte Carlo biscuits off the plate and went back to his room. I flopped back in my chair and though “Oh my god,I am now sitting here polishing my own 20 shoes, in an apron by myself and trying to bribe my Dad with biscuits. This was meant to be my showcase performance.

I was thinking to myself “I have just lost my entire men’s group in 6 minutes, (including my Dad)What am I going to do for the next 84 minutes?” The feeling I had was one of complete devastation and now I had to do the ‘walk of shame’ as I slowly packed up all my gear in front of the other carers and carried it back out to my van . I was really feeling sorry for myself and my ego was bruised. I had just blown the budget on an activity that lasted 6 minutes that everyone hated. I walked back and forth to the store room with head bowed reviewing my performance over and over. The scary part was I could not think what I could change to make things better? I was not able to fill out my report as I was feeling so down.

The co-ordinator saw me and called me into her office for a debrief. She asked “How did it go?” I told her the truth and said “It was a disaster.” She tried to comfort me by saying “With dementia you never know what is going to happen next, and you need to celebrate the small moments within a session.” I told her that I did not have any small moments to celebrate, and even my Dad left the activity. She was trying to counsel me, but then ended up bursting into laughter and was not able to stop. She was holding her stomach from all the laughter and consoled me by saying “well, things can only get better from here.”

I drove back to work depressed. I parked my van in the loading dock at Burnside Village Shopping Centre and actually fell asleep at the wheel for 20 minutes due to exhaustion. When I awoke I drove home and went over in my head what went wrong. My next challenge? What the hell do I do next week?

The next morning I turned up to see Dad and face the music with the other carers. I walked into Dad’s room (who was just dozing on his bed) and something didn’t feel right. I looked around and peered into the open bathroom. I then got the shock of my life, sitting on Dad’s toilet was a large 84 yo female resident in her nightie who was lost and had decided to stop in for a ‘tinkle’. I certainly thought my day could not be worse than the day before, maybe it will be?

This is dementia.

Brett Partington is a passionate dementia advocate from Adelaide, South Australia. He is the founder of the Dementia Downunder community for families and caregivers of people with dementia. This group has over 4700 members and a ‘people helping people’ ethos.

Brett’s efforts in the dementia care field have been recognized with several awards including a ‘Pride of Australia’ medal in 2017. His greatest achievement is his ability to connect with people with dementia and help their families by ‘cutting them to the chase’ with simple and easy to understand information.

Brett also enjoys being an authentic storyteller and writer who captures ‘magical moments’ and shares them with authenticity to the dementia community and beyond.

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Famous for writing authentic real life stories that both resonate & entertain. A witty & raw storyteller with a unique take on just about everything.

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Brett Partington

Famous for writing authentic real life stories that both resonate & entertain. A witty & raw storyteller with a unique take on just about everything.